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ManyTracks Organic Gardening
 
with Sue Robishaw

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Archived
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Three decades of Growing Good Food in the Northwoods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula
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Down to Earth Information, Experiences, Thoughts

To keep in touch with our many friends and readers we started a Blog Post page on our website (see link above in the Menu bar), which travels down many different paths of our lives, including gardening. To keep that page within some semblance of boundaries we delete older posts. But the information is still relevant and of interest to some folks, so I'll be archiving those posts here for now, in date order. Some winter day I'll get inspired and organize them better by subject! Meantime, I hope you have a good time browsing.

 
 



GREENHOUSE - Lights! - 2-5-2017

The plants in the greenhouse love sunny days. And they are content to rest when it’s dark or cloudy. That works out fine for us if they are mature and don’t need to grow; we just harvest leaves as we want them. But by mid-winter the old plants are all harvested and the young plants are waiting for longer, brighter days to grow. This has been our in-between time of year when often the only green in our salads is chopped parsley. We’ve often talked of adding grow-lights but they have traditionally been power-hogs that wouldn’t fit into our conservative-use winter alternative energy system. Short and cloudy days mean less power for us as well as the plants. Until now...

Our house lighting is entirely LED (except for one lone compact fluorescent holdout). Steve has been building and adding LED lights to the house since the early days of LED lighting, when making your own lights was about the only way to have them, and the choices were few and expensive. Forward a few years and LED lighting is now not only readily available but popular and inexpensive! Technology moves fast. Could we now consider adding lights to the greenhouse? Our PV system is larger, and we truly want fresh, and abundant, greens in our salads. So before Steve was quite done with the Array-Cam project, he was checking out, ordering, designing, building lights for the greenhouse.

photo pot herbs under lightBut what type? What colors How many? Will they be worth it? I did a bit of research and it was rather overwhelming. I arbitrarily decided our greens didn’t need the in-depth scientific approach that most articles provided (almost all for commercial farm and marijuana greenhouses). We tried an experiment, putting a flat of just started growing greens (which were already getting a little leggy from the minimal light available in the greenhouse) and some pots of just germinated herbs and flowers under two of the regular LED lights in the shop, morning and evening for about 2 hrs each. After a week I could see a positive difference in the flat of greens (the others were too young yet but I figure it likely helped them, too). OK! Let’s go.

Steve had some strips of warm-white LED’s on hand and ordered more strips of cool-whites (more light in these). We decided this would do and be more flexible down the road. We might some day add red and blue but for now this is what we have -- two stripes of LED lights seven feet long. That almost covers the length of the front bench. With some fancy design/build the light bar can be moved up out of the way during the day and to be able to remove/install the insulating window panels at night. For about 2 hrs in the morning and in the evening they are on, extending the day for the plants. I’m really happy to have this latest upgrade to the greenhouse, and I think the plants are, too!

photo greenhouse lightbar end    greenhouse lightbar top    photo greenhouse lightbar lights     photo greenhouse lights night    photo greenhouse lightbar up



GREENHOUSE - Calendula - 1-15-2017

photo calendula in greenhouseSub zero temps outside but cheery inside! When it's this cold it also (usually) means clear sunny days and beautiful brisk starry nights. The solar heating panels and south facing windows pour in the heat (in a winter moderate way) so we bank the woodstove and don't have to get it going again until the sun goes down. And the PV system is at its highest with clear sun and reflective snow. The batteries are full and we turn on small heaters to make use of the extra power. And that calendula in the greenhouse breaks out the blooms to celebrate.

 Actually, the calendula has been happily blooming in the greenhouse since soon after I transplanted it from the garden in October, a rooted side shoot of a summer growing plant. It's wonderfully tolerant and is content to blossom whether it's winter or summer, inside or out, as long as its basic needs are met--sunshine, moderate moisture, no deep freezes. It thankfully does not have high demands. That's why it's one of my favorite flowers. A hardy annual it can handle some frost; is easy to grow; self sows readily; is a sturdy plant that gets along well with others. And it blooms and blooms and blooms as long as you keep the spent blossoms picked off. Though towards the end of summer you have to leave some to mature seeds so it can provide plants next year.

Mine is a common variety - Pacific Beauty Mix - nice gold/yellow blossoms. I like it. It's been selfphoto calendula in garden sowing in my garden for so long I've forgotten when I first planted the seed. But I noticed this year that I didn't have many plants coming up, the downside of having a very good mulch that sometimes mulches out seeds I want to grow. And I found I had neglected to harvest any seed, I was so used  to it sowing itself. Now, I expect they'll be some calendula popping up somewhere next year, they don't give up that easily, but just to be sure I bought new seed. I think I'll plant a few inside right now so maybe I'll have some extra early fresh blooms in the spring. The plants I dig up from the garden do sometimes get a bit tired by late winter.

It's a little cold in the greenhouse right now, it was down to 32 degrees this morning after a ten below night, but it gets up in the low 50's during a sunny day. Everything growing out there is hardy so I don't worry about the low temps but I'll start the seed inside the house to give it a warm start. We all enjoy that sunshine when it happens but it's those cloudy days outside that the fresh green plants and bright calendula flowers growing in the greenhouse really brighten our winter days.



GREENHOUSE - Activity - 1-9-2017

photo greenhouse lettuce transplantsWell, maybe not a lot of activity but it warmed up outside today to 20 deg. and we're supposed to have a few days of these warm temperatures (and finally some real snow showers, too!) (we only have about 8-10" right now) so I figured this was my chance to transplant the waiting lettuce seedlings into the recently cleared (by eating) flats. Not much growth is happening yet but I'd like these to be ready when the days get longer and things pick up. And it was a pleasant (relatively speaking) 47 degrees inside. So we now have 8 flats of greenhouse lettuce -- Brown Winter, Salina, Red Tinged, Diamante -- ready to grow when the conditions are right. And since we're getting down to real slim pickings with what is left of the older crop we'll be quite ready, too. It was fun to dig in the dirt again, even if in a small way.



GARDEN - Looking Forward - 1-7-2017

photo garden 2016I enjoy looking back at last season’s garden but mostly I’m looking ahead to the coming season. What do I want to change, what do I want to do different this year? Some decisions I don’t make until I’m standing in the garden with plants or seeds in hand, looking for a good spot for this or that, or a bit of extra room for just one more whatever. But I do write out a general plan; it helps me to have an overall idea. Most of what I grow has settled in nicely based on many years of what we like, what we eat, what grows best, what works here. But there’s always room for something new. And my biggest change this coming season will be to add more flowers and herbs and to mix things up a bit. Nothing exotic, just something more for the pollinators, and for fun.

I’ve been swimming in a sea full of ideas for the orchard, adding diversity, looking for understory ideas for the fruit trees, growing towards what some are calling nowadays a “forest garden”. And I realized I could easily do more of that in my vegetable garden. The two aren’t really separate, the roughly 50 x 80 ft vegetable plot being in the middle of the orchard, with berries in both, but on paper they are separate. And on paper my vegetable plot is very organized. Some things even stay that way in the garden -- corn, squash, potatoes, tomatoes tend to be in their own 4 x 32 ft plots. Except for those that end up elsewhere, leftovers when the main plot is full. And mostly the other crops are in smaller blocks, one next to another. It’s not that I don’t care for the companion planting idea, or ideal. It’s a practical thing, that often has to do with frosts.

I’ve had decades of having to suddenly cover tender growing plants when that late, or early, or mid summer frost is forecast. And I have a supply of old blankets stored in their own mouse proof cabinet ready for the task. And I have learned that it is much easier to cover the plants that need protection if they are all together in one space and not scattered here and there. Been there and done that! One does get better at these things.

There is actually plenty of diversity and interaction in my garden. When things get growing I can hardly get through some of the paths between plots, supposedly there to walk through. It can get to be quite a wonderful jungle. So why mix things up more? In some cases because it will work better for me. Snap beans planted in one row along the edge of a plot with something else in the middle is easier to harvest than a large block of beans, though a block works well for the dry beans since I only harvest them once. And spinach definitely likes to be singly along an edge. Coles don’t mind being in the middle, nor do flowers, at least not the simple ones I grow (zinnia, marigold, calendula, cosmos). Lettuce can use more shade mid summer so maybe I’ll put some plants amongst the corn.

I’m a bit tired of the herbs being in one block and most need to be divided anyway. I think they need to be spread out so one can appreciate them more as individuals. I’ve started transplanting some out and around and I’ll do more of that and throughout the garden. I think the vegetables will like that, too. And why not plant more flowers for the pollinators? I sure do appreciate them. I’ve ordered borage and nasturtiums. It’s been a long time since I’ve grown either of those and it’ll be fun to have them again.

One of my favorite flowers is buckwheat. It’s an easy summer loving crop, and I plant a little here and there as space permits. The bees and such love it. I let it flower then cut it down when it starts setting seed but there’s always plenty of volunteers around. It does grow large and rank, and I doubt anyone would accuse it of being sweet smelling but if the bees like it, I like it. And I let the broccoli flower for the bees as well. Many of the common garden vegetables are beautiful “gone to seed”, or flower and well loved by the pollinators.

It’s not a traditional flower garden by any means, nor the carefully designed permaculture/polyculture system that seems to be all the rage nowdays, but something that suits my practical side, my busy summer schedule, my love of lightly organized wild. I think it will be a fun garden, and I have no doubt it will feed us well as it has for almost forty years.



GARDEN - 2016 - 1-5-2017

photo garden squash plantsA new year is here with infinite possibilities! There’s nothing quite like imagining working (playing) in the garden to warm you up on a cold winter’s evening. It may be zero degrees outside but in my mind it’s warm and sunny with green things growing all around as I look over my garden plan. What happened this past season? What worked, what didn’t, what seeds do I need to grow out this coming year, what do I need to buy? And I wonder anew at the abundant food that garden gave us. It’s always amazing but this year was over the top for some of the more heat loving crops.

Every year is different; that is one thing I can always depend on! And this past year it was record warmth. I usually figure, roughly, a frost free growing season from about the 2nd week in June till the first or second week in September. This year we had a mild spring, with a last frost mid May, then just one freeze June 7. Then we didn’t have another frost (freeze actually) until October 9. In between was unusually warm with plenty of rain. The corn and squash were beside themselves with joy and enthusiasm. And the sunflowers turned into trees that I almost had to get out an axe to cut down. The squash I grow is a relatively short season buttercup variety I got from Kathleen Plunket-Black of Plum Creek Seeds, a long time and very experienced seed saver in Arkansas WI. It’s rich, sweet and nutty, and I usually get a reasonable crop with maybe half the fruit maturing before frost. So I plant with that in mind. But this year not only did the vines grow with abandon setting fruit right and left (thankfully along the edge of the garden so they could sprawl out over the grass), every single one, except for one half grown late specimen, fully matured. Wow, did we have squash this year! I make a bit of squash soup but our favorite is to have plain cooked squash with our luncheon salad, almost every day. We never tire of it.

By contrast, two years ago we had a long, cool, wet spring and early summer. Fruit set was poor for many crops including the squash and cucumbers. The harvest was sparse to pathetic, and the big question among gardeners was “did you get any cucumbers? any squash?”. It was a rare one who did. Not even zucchini. Then this year one could hardly give cucumbers away. It was the year to make pickles for sure. I didn’t have any trouble finding homes for the extra winter squash though. It found its way into many a Thanksgiving dinner for which I was very thankful. Make hay while the sun shines, as they say, and eat squash when you have it. We do, and we are, along with a very appreciated abundance of other vegetables.



Post by Sue GREENHOUSE - Greens - 12-30-2016

photo greenhouse lettuce Oct 20In the winter we move to eating out of the greenhouse instead of the garden. Not only is it great to see growing green things when it is white and freezing outside, it's great to have fresh greens to eat! In the summer the greenhouse is empty of plants and is our heat loving Sasha cat's domain. But come October it comes to life once again. This is how it looked Oct. 20 when first moved in from the garden where they had been growing.

In the short days of fall and early winter there is not much growth so I start lettuce and spinach in the garden, then move the full grown plants inside when the real freezes start outside. Full grown plants of kale and parsley and others are dug and transplanted into the waist high bed along the house side of the greenhouse. This works great. I can harvest from them all winter. There most often is little growth until January when the days start getting significantly longer and there is (usually) more sun. But this year it was oddly warm and sunny in Nov. & Dec. So the lettuce in particular just kept growing. It got to be quite a jungle and there was plenty for luncheon salads. But 70 days later you can see it is getting a bit sparse. So I'm lookinphoto greenhouse bed Dec 30g forward to the coming flush of January photo lettuce in greenhouse Dec 30growth. In the far end are two flats of small lettuce seedlings waiting to be transplanted to the larger flats as the older plants are removed. They will be our salads later in the winter.




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Have you read  "Frost Dancing - Tips from a Northern Gardener" ? A fun short read.

or "Homesteading Adventures"    Creating our backwoods homestead--the first 20 years.

and "Growing Berries for Food and Fun"   A journey you can use in your own garden.

updated 01/16/2017

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